While Avatar: The Last Airbender deserves a lot of credit for getting me into animation…There is another piece of media that deserves to be mentioned. And considering it just celebrated its 20th anniversary this month, it seems like the right time to discuss Spirited Away.
I first saw the movie when I was about 10 years old – I remember that Cartoon Network was having some kind of Miyazaki Week celebration and they kept airing promos for Spirited Away. The commercials intrigued me – and so I decided that was going to be how I spent my Friday night.
The story of 10-year-old Chihiro who was forced to work in a bathhouse for spirits to free her parents struck me in a way no other movie had. When the movie finished I was left with the thought, “I didn’t know animation could do that.”
I still haven’t quite figured out what the mysterious “that” is – but the movie quickly embedded itself into my mind. And it has remained, one of, if not my absolute favorite movie of all time.
I know it’s a little basic – as it’s the only Ghibli film to win an Academy Award and has been highly ranked by many other publications – obviously it’s gotten recognition plenty of times before…but not from me.
Right Time, Right Place
While I love the other Ghibli movies, none of them have had quite the same effect on me. Somehow, I saw the movie at exactly the right time in my life.
That’s something I noticed about a lot of Miyazaki’s Ghibli films – each of them is targeted to a different stage in life. Spirited Away, he once said, was explicitly designed for 10-year-old girls. The movie was literally targeted at me.
Now, I know there are theories that the whole film is an allegory to child prostitution – and I think there can be an argument for that. But I don’t think that is what Miyazaki had in mind while making the film
It’s not that I don’t believe in the death of the author – but sometimes, things aren’t that deep. Or maybe it’s just me wanting to preserve some part of my childhood as innocent and sacred. Something not ruined by other fans or…the creator.
(I’m looking at you, JK Rowling.)
Miyazaki said had made the movie for the 10-year-old daughter of one of his friends, who was sullen and withdrawn during a trip. Y’know, how any 10-year-old would be.
He believed it was because there was little for her to do except read – and she wasn’t interested in most manga and shows for her age, which tended to focus on romantic relationships.
“I felt this was not what they held dear in their hearts, not what they wanted. And so I wondered if I could make a movie in which they could be heroines,” he said.
Sure there were other shows with ten or eleven-year-old protagonist girls – but they didn’t have the same effect on me.
I had my shows where “girl power” was a running theme and I really enjoyed them. But none of them were quite as down to Earth as Spirited Away.
A Love Story
Even though Spirited Away isn’t an explicitly romantic tale, love is still a prominent theme.
Obviously, Chihiro’s love for her parents is what drives her for most of the movie. She wants to save them from being eaten – and her love for them allows her to beat Yubaba at the end of the film.
Chihiro’s kind heart is what saves No Face and what gets Boh to gain independence.
Their love for her is what goes into the hairband that they make for her. It’s a very sweet gesture.
And then, there’s her love for Haku, the river spirit who saved her life when she was little. It’s clear that he cares for her deeply. I don’t know whether the love is romantic, platonic, or something else. But it doesn’t really matter, does it?
They love each other. And that is all that really matters.
Do I ship Chihiro and Haku? Well, yeah. I hope they meet again when they’re older, somehow.
The ending of the American dub is different from the Japanese, as the American one implies Chihiro remembers everything that happened while the Japanese one doesn’t.
I hope she remembers. It never seems right to me to have characters forget about their adventures that fundamentally change them as a person. But, then again, the movie says, “Once you meet somebody, you never really forget them.”
In one way or another Chihiro will remember her adventures and the love she shared with the others. And it does make me sad, knowing that it’s likely that Chihiro and Haru will never meet again.
The Mysterious Atmosphere
There is something about Spirited Away’s atmosphere – the way that the spirit world was presented but yet not entirely explained – astounds me. As a writer and a consumer of animation – I often have it in my head that a world other than our own, needs to have some explanation for how things work – and Spirited Away never does that.
There are dragons, spirits, telephones, cigarettes, and modern-day farming tools. There’s magic as well…. Many of the workers look human – but it’s only by reading background material that you know they’re transformed animals.
How did they make deals with Yubaba? It doesn’t matter.
It’s never answered. It’s not important to the story that they’re telling.
But even then you have the little moments of ma, or emptiness – in the movie. Like the scene of Chihiro silently riding the train with her companions. Something about it gets me every time…I don’t know what it is about this scene if it’s the different backgrounds (I love the image of the singular house on a little mound of earth surrounded by water)…But it hits differently than the rest of the film.
It’s a point in the film that allows you just to wonder and think about the world Chihiro is in – and where the mysterious train is eventually headed. The world is much bigger than the bathhouse and Zeniba’s cottage.
There’s a whole world in the spirit realm – each with people with their own lives and dreams…Well, if the characters are alive that is.
It’s one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema because there’s so much possibility contained within it and it really has the aura of being on a train and realizing that the other passengers have lives just as full as my own.
That Special Ghibli Something
This is one of those animated movies that would never work in live-action. Though, I am interested in how it will come to life on-stage…And I don’t think that American studios will ever be able to replicate the magic of Studio Ghibli.
Though Spirited Away was intended for the very limited demographic of 10-year-old girls…and is distinctly Japanese, something about it obviously spoke to a wider audience. Or maybe it was the fact that it was created for such a distinct demographic that gave the film such a strong sense of identity.
I love this film – and it’s always going to have a special place in my heart. I don’t know why it took me so long to write about it, the same way I’m still trying to figure out what about this film made it affect me so profoundly.
What’s your favorite Ghibli movie and why does it speak to you? How has it changed your life?